What We Talk About When We Talk About Diversity in YA

Or, what does that even mean?

 

By Zoraida Córdova

Brace yourselves. Here’s another blog post on the lack of diversity in YA. When we bring up these topics the common words I see are FEAR, UNCOMFORTABLE, GUILT.  If a white person brings up the subject then, “who are they to talk about it?” If a POC does it, we’ll be seen as a bunch of angry people. So, Catch 22. I get it. Writing these posts is HARD, but they should be written. Recently one of my favorite authors ever, Jenny Han, tweeted about diversity in YA. The thing is, we need to feel uncomfortable, and like Jenny said, “that’s the risk.”

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ecsaHere’s what you need to know about me. I was born in Ecuador. I moved to Queens, NY when I was 6. Being in America for 20 years makes me American. My public school experience is American. Yet, when people look at me and hear me speak, they are perplexed. Why? You got me.  The “Your English is so good!” “What are you?” “My friend is from Ecuador, do you know LUIS PABLO ESTEBAN SANTIAGO?” Spoiler alert: I don’t.

This difference wasn’t apparent to me from the beginning. Between grades 1-4, I was in bilingual classes. (My Little Mermaid Spanish didn’t get me to the top of the class right away.) All of my classmates had either emigrated from a Latin American country or had Latin American parents. Salvadorian, Peruvian, Puerto Rican, you name it. Guess what, we spoke English. We listened to the Spice Girls. We cut up our bangs like Lindsay Lohan in The Parent Trap. We watched TRL and taped the music videos. We learned the awesome moves to Christina Aguilera’s Genie in a Bottle (She’s half Ecuadorian, BTW). At home, sometimes I’d eat Chef Boyardi ravioli, sometimes I’d have rice and steak and beans.

So when I got to 5th grade, I was placed into the “regular” kids class. English only. Suddenly my friends also included Guyanese, Jamaican, African-American. Guess what, we still listened to shitty New photo 4 (1)Millennium pop and idolized Harriet the Spy.

Junior high school and high school were also the same thing. Look at all the shades of brownness! Here are some pictures from my high school yearbook. Spoiler alert: I am still a nerd.

My experience growing up in neighborhoods that are already diverse gives me a different perspective. Could I have used more diverse characters in my current books? Yes. My trilogy centers around a white merman from Brooklyn. His love interest is mixed. His friends are mixed. Merpeople in my world come in all shades. But the answer is still yes. You can always add diverse characters into your books.

photo 3 (1)When people say they’re “afraid” they’re not going to give their “Other” character justice by writing from an experience other than an Anglo-American experience, I call bull. It is scary writing about an experience other than yours. However, unless your character has just moved to Kentucky from a remote town in Panama, then why are you afraid to write the experience of an otherwise straightforward character? Your character can still be named Danilo Cordova and the only research you have to do is “What does a teenage boy like?”

If your character is Nuyorican, then you’d have to do more research. Stereotypes need not apply. Because, here’s a little known secret, not all Latin experiences are the same. No matter where we were born, when we immigrated, where we were raised, we can’t be lumped into the same experience. This is not to say that every YA author should write a novel about how hard it is to grow up being brown, because I did it and my adolescence was pretty “average.”

If you’re writing a fantasy/sci-fi novel and there is not a single non-white person to be found, then my only question is “how come?” Here you have a chance to create a whole new world, where our carefully constructed American ideal of white-only beauty need not apply. When I read YA fantasy novels and the only time race is mentioned is when a new character comes in and has “chocolate” or “earth colored” skin, I just cringe. This mean everyone else I’ve been reading about is white. Not only is that lazy writing, it’s a limited way of thinking about a world that is supposed to be fantastical.

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So how do we fix this? Well, lets talk about it. Let’s be friends. Reach out to someone who has a different experience as you. READ. I  to this date have yet to read a YA about a teenage Ecuadorian girl. Not even a slice of life story about a girl who falls in love and there’s a nice cover of them at the beach, or lying down on a lawn. I am, however, excited about Diana Renn’s upcoming YA thriller Latitude ZeroThe book takes place in Boston and in Ecuador. Diana is not Ecuadorian, but she wrote an exciting novel with diverse characters. She reached out and did her research. latitudecover

Here we go back to this FEAR concept. If you throw in a character named Chiquita Bonita in the middle of the scene, and she has hoop earrings and says “Ay, mami,” then you should be afraid because you’re propagating a stereotype. If you describe your Latina girl as “exotic,” “curvaceous,” “spicy,” or “saucy” then you are propagating a stereotype, or making gumbo IDK. If you’re like Britney Spears and equate a Latin male with “the bad boy type,” then you should be afraid because you’re propagating a stereotype. If you as an author can go on Google and research “how to kill someone and get away with it” because “your protagonist needs to know” then you can also try Googling about other American communities that are not your own.

There is a difference between being afraid to write about a culture that is not your own, and consciously creating a two dimensional stereotypical character.

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One of my favorite retellings of Romeo & Juliet is the most recent one on Broadway, partially because Orlando Bloom is shirtless but also because Juliet is black. They aren’t divided because of their skin color. This isn’t West Side Story. It’s not that one is brown and from the wrong side of the tracks, and the other one is nice and white, so they can’t be together. This is a story of feuding families that have been feuding so long they can’t even remember why or how it started. It’s that simple.

If you’re worried you’re still propagating a stereotype, then reach out. You’ll make a friend. You’ll learn something new. I am extremely lucky to have had diverse friends. I know that’s not the case for everyone and I know that if you’re not in a big city, chances are the POC in you neighborhood are marginalized. I’m not in Arizona where they’re trying to wipe out Mexican studies. I’m not in a tiny town in Ohio where there is one black kid in the class. I’m in NYC, which isn’t perfect and has a history of putting away their low income minorities to make room for gentrification. But my eyes are extremely open (and I got new glasses today) as to the future we need to create for Young Adult literature. It’s a team effort.

Maybe if we keep making it a point, when we talk about diverse characters in the coming years, it will be more than just a trend; it’ll be the new norm.

 

Edited: 3/31/14

*** Representation of Latin@s in media has been a personal focus for me.  This is not to say that “diversity” to me means only adding Latin@s to literature. The conversation extends to all marginalized people. Like I said, lets talk about it.

Diana López on Migas, Confetti, and Martha Stewart

By Diana López

Ask My mood RingRecently, I was asked an excellent question. This came from a writing teacher who shared Ask My Mood Ring How I Feel with his class and wanted me to comment on the narrative techniques I used. His students noticed that I’d added a description of migas, a dish that Tejanos are very familiar with. So they were curious about how I handled cultural details in my fiction. In other words, when writing for readers who do not have the same cultural background as my characters, how do I decide what to explain and what to leave for the reader to figure out?

I love sharing the unique foods, words, and customs of my Tex-Mex world. That said, I don’t intentionally add cultural details. I don’t have to because they’re here, in my home and neighborhood. I don’t even recognize them as unique sometimes. For example, in the second chapter of Confetti Girl, we visit a home filled with cascarones and everything that is used to make them—eggshells, tissue paper, vinegar dyes, and confetti. I grew up with cascarones. Starting in January, my mother would save eggshells, and by the end of Lent, we’d have piles of egg cartons stacked on top of the fridge. She’d save old magazines and newspapers too, so we could make confetti with a hole-puncher. Then a few days before Easter, the family would gather around the table to dye the eggshells and fill them with confetti. This was my favorite part of cascarones—not cracking them on each other’s heads but making them.

Confetti GirlCascarones are an important tradition during San Antonio’s Fiesta, and people often sell them from empty parking lots or their front yards. After seeing so many confetti eggs around my neighborhood, I thought, what a great detail for my book. I had no idea they’d be so important in the final version.

When I first submitted the manuscript to New York publishers, they wrote back with questions about these mysterious cascarones. They wanted pictures and instructions. They were so fascinated by something I’d taken for granted. So now when you open a copy of Confetti Girl, you’ll see the confetti egg instructions on its opening pages. It’s wonderful to hear from readers who are making them for the first time. A young girl from Australia wrote to say that she and her mum made them, and when I visit schools, students often share some very creative cascarones, much too pretty to crack on anyone’s head.

Something similar happened with a cultural detail in my mood ring book. Making a promesa when someone gets ill is a common practice in South Texas, so naturally, when my character Erica learns her mother has breast cancer, she makes a promise to get five hundred people to sponsor her for a fundraiser. Like the cascarones, the promesa gained importance as I worked through the novel. Not only did it provide a goal for Erica, but it also worked thematically by giving her a chance to ask a lot of questions about faith and hope. I love when details come to life this way.

ChokeThere are smaller cultural details in my books, too. Erica sings “pio pio pio” to her mom. In Choke, my character eats barbacoa and drinks Big Red for breakfast. My books are full of “mijas” and “viejitos.” These details may not take on any symbolic significance, but they are just as important because they’re integral to the setting.

At a book festival last month, a participant asked me to name a pet peeve related to writing. I said, “I hate when people tell me I should add more cultural interest to my books.” In other words, I don’t like these details to be forced. They have to feel natural, and as long as I’m not consciously adding them, they will be. Sure, my characters eat migas, but they eat pizza, too.

So how do I decide which details to explain and which to leave alone? This is where a good editor comes in. We’ll get to this point in the revision process where she’ll highlight places with unfamiliar images and words. I remember the first time this happened. I wrote a book set in Corpus Christi, and I mentioned the T-heads, not realizing how unique that term was. The editor had no idea what I was talking about, so I added an appositive phrase for clarification. Ultimately, that’s what I have to determine. Are there enough context clues or should I be a little more explicit? The last thing I want is for a reader to stop because she’s confused. In that sense, I am very grateful to have an editor who is not from my world and who can point out these places—and the best editors are good about letting me decide what to do.

Now here’s something very interesting. Did you know that Martha Stewart featured cascarones on her show? Soon they’ll be as mainstream as piñatas and guacamole, so don’t be surprised when I take all the credit!

Photo credit: Todd Yates

Photo credit: Todd Yates

Diana López is the author of the middle grade novels Confetti Girl, Choke, and Ask My Mood Ring How I Feel. An adaptation of Choke will be featured on the Lifetime Movie Network this summer. Ms. Lopez teaches at the University of Houston-Victoria and works with CentroVictoria, an organization devoted to promoting Mexican American literature. She is also one of the editors of the literary magazine, Huizache.